Changes of Stressed Vowels in Early Old English

§ 116. Sound changes, particularly vowel changes, took place in Eng­lish at every period of history.

The development of vowels in Early OE consisted of the modifica­tion of separate vowels, and also of the modification of entire sets of vowels.

It should be borne in mind that the mechanism of all phonetic changes strictly conforms with the general pattern (see § 26). The change begins with growing variation in pronunciation, which manifests itself in the appearance of numerous allophones: after the stage of increased variation, some allophones prevail over the others and a replacement lakes place. It may result in the splitting of phonemes and their numer­ical growth, which fills in the "empty boxes" of the system or introduces new distinctive features. It may also lead to the merging of old pho­nemes, as their new prevailing allophones can fall together. Most fre­quently the change will involve both types of replacement, splitting and merging, so that we have to deal both with the rise of new phonemes and with the redistribution of new allophones among the existing pho­nemes. For the sake of brevity, the description of most changes below is restricted to the initial and final stages.

Independent Changes. Development of Monophthongs

§ 117. The PG short [a] and the long [a:], which had arisen in West and North Germanic, underwent similar alterations in Early OE: they were fronted and, in the process of fronting, they split into several sounds.

The principal regular direction of the change — [a] > [æ] and [a:] > [æ:] — is often referred to as the fronting or palatalisation of [a, a:]. The other directions can be interpreted as positional deviations or restrictions to this trend: short [a] could change to [ɔ] or [ā] and long [a:] became [o:] before a nasal; the preservation (or, perhaps, the resto­ration) of the short [a] was caused by a back vowel in the next syllable — see the examples in Table I (sometimes [a] occurs in other positions as well, e.g. OE macian, land, NE make, land).

Table 1

Splitting of [a] and [a:] in Early Old English

Change illustrated Examples
PG OE Other OG languages OE NE
  æ Gt pata pæt that
    O Icel dagr dæʒ day
a o, ā Gt mann(a) mon man
    O Icel land land land
  a Gt magan maʒan may
    Gt dagos daʒas days
  æ: OHG dár pær there
    OHG sláfen slæpan sleep
  o: OHG mano mōna moon
    O Icel mánaðr mōnap month

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